As with everything else in life, there are two ways to look at it. Undoubtedly, somebody up at Columbia thought that Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume II ought to be in there competing with Bangla Desh for the Christmas dollar, and thus the set, complete with beautiful Bangla Desh color cover, was rush-released into the stores. Dylan, bless him, wasn’t so calculating, and took pains to include his own Christmas gift: five “new” songs — or, more accurately, five songs made somewhat famous by other artists but never before recorded by him — not found on older albums.
Now the Greatest Hits concept is neither unique nor a crime, and the release of five “new” songs by one of the most important artists of our time can only be an occasion at which to rejoice, or so it would seem. Why then, upon repeated listenings and much consideration, does the idea seem more bad than good? What is it that finally disappoints about these two fine records? I’m not at all sure I know, but perhaps some form of sympathetic critical schizophrenia — the pro and the con — might be illuminating.
OPINION 1: One ought to be humble in the face of genius, and surely you don’t deny that Dylan is a genius? Just what is it that bothers you about Greatest Hits, Volume II?
OPINION 2: I am humble, and that’s what makes it so difficult. Sometimes late at night after listening to these two LPs, I become bold enough to change that is to was. I don’t believe there’s anything about GH, Vol. II that warrants a think piece — the time is just not right for it: let’s wait for the new album — but its very existence and the juxtaposition of pre- and post-John Wesley Harding material almost forces one to reach conclusions one doesn’t want to reach.
O 1: Just hold on there! You’re not going to deny that Dylan is a genius, are you?
O 2: Probably not, but ?
O 1: I would hope not. Taking the long view, wouldn’t it be both fairer and more correct to say that the early songs are different from rather than better than the songs from Nashville Skyline, Self-Portrait, and New Morning? I can remember you liking all of those records.
O 2 (after a long pause): No, it wouldn’t be more correct. In the main, the post-John Wesley Harding songs are definitely different from the later songs, the major difference being they’re not as good. One of the reasons I don’t like these LPs is that they force me to admit that.
O 1: But can’t you realize that GH, Vol. II isn’t a package designed for the Dylan aficionado? It’s not meant to be critically definitive. It’s a gift set, damn it, and that fact makes your conclusions way out of line. What if they had picked “Day of the Locusts” instead of “If Not for You” from New Morning? And “All the Tired Horses,” “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” and “Copper Kettle” from Self Portrait?
O 2: My conclusions would be the same, but GH, Vol. II would be a better set. We’re belaboring the same point. You’re saying it’s not fair for me to judge an artist’s career by the criterion of a random collection, and I’m saying that I agree, but the criterion was more or less rammed down my throat. Dylan turns out to be a creature of contexts after all, and too many of these songs sound weak and out of place in pastures for which they were not designed. “Lay Lady Lay” sounds almost ludicrous next to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” There’s no doubt whatsoever which is the better song.
O 1: Well ?
O 2: Look, I’m being deliberately negative: that’s my side of the fence here. I’m saying that Dylan was once the champ. On Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and The Times They Are A-Changin’, he knocked out Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, et al. Another Side of Bob Dylan was a moving and brilliant transitional album, perhaps the most personal work he’s ever done. He managed at least a draw or a TKO over the Beatles and the Stones with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. John Wesley Harding was another fine transitional LP. Since then he’s been floored on both Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and some others. New Morning seems to me only a so-so comeback. The sad fact is that almost anybody could have written “Lay Lady Lay,” “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” “If Not for You,” and most of the songs on their respective records. He seems to have lost his individuality, his ambition. It’s not that he’s made foolish moves, but no moves at all.
O 1: But you once wrote, in these very pages: “Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane, and interesting statement about being happy. It could well be what Dylan thinks it is, his best album.
O 2: Like Bogart in Casablanca, I was misinformed. That’s why no one should pay any attention to critics, especially the artist.
O 1: That makes more sense than anything you’ve said so far. Perhaps you’ve been “misinformed” again, and, in two years, we’ll read the retraction.
O 2: I hope so.
O 1: What you hope is immaterial. My God, Dylan is more than an average rock & roller: he’s the real thing — a man, a myth, almost a way of life. What he’s done in ten years is awesome. You just can’t sit here and pick away at him on the basis of some haphazard Greatest Hits collection which probably wasn’t his idea in the first place. I’ll grant that some of your points are true, but they’re minor. You seem to insist on playing Hamlet where such high drama is totally uncalled for.
O 2: I said at the beginning of this that I don’t believe there’s anything about GH, Vol. II that warrants a think piece, that I felt I was being forced into this. I’m perfectly content to wait for the next LP. But I don’t expect any surprises there.
O 1: You don’t?
O 2: No. You’re 30, I’m 30, Dylan’s 30. After the last decade in this country, what on anybody’s record could honestly surprise you? I expect a continuation of good music, but I don’t think he’ll pull off another Highway 61. Fortunately or unfortunately, none of us, Dylan included, is that divinely crazy any more: the time is just not right for it. We were so much younger then, we’re older than that now. Et cetera.
O 1: That’s pathetic! Given Dylan’s history, I can see no reason why his next album couldn’t be his best. I’m not saying it will be, but there’s no real reason to think it won’t. Are you pandering any proof?
O 2: No.
O 1: Then perhaps you ought to consider some facts which can only be termed optimistic: (1) “George Jackson”; (2) the Bangla Desh concert; (3) six songs on GH, Vol. II “Watching the River Flow,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “I Shall Be Released,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Down in the Flood”; (4) all of Dylan’s closest friends report he’s in high gear again creatively, both in and out of the studio.
O 2: I see a lot of optimism there, but not as much as you do. (1) You’re not going to get me to say anything bad about “George Jackson” — the old fire’s there: he’s playing guitar and harmonica and singing with new life — but I think it’s a lovely one-shot without a context. I don’t foresee any great recommitment, although I do believe the song is sincere. Anyone who says it isn’t is really being cruel. (2) I don’t know because I wasn’t there, and neither were you. We’ll just have to wait until the LP is released. But none of the songs on it are new ones. (3) Technically, the only “new” songs on GH, Vol. II are the two produced by Leon Russell, “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The opening lines of “River” are “What’s the matter with me?/I don’t have much to say,” and that about sums it up. “Masterpiece” is better than that, but not much. All in all, I think it’s fair to say that the great Leon Russell experiment was a failure, and I doubt that Dylan will release any more of it. “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” is stone beautiful, probably the best thing on the whole set, but it was recorded in 1963. I fully agree with you about “I Shall Be Released,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Down in the Flood.” Despite the fact that they’re not “new,” they do end the album on a strong note of optimism. All of the emptiness and fussiness is gone, the sharpness is back, and Dylan is singing and playing like music means something to him again. He’s having fun, and so do we. (4) No comment, except that I’m glad.
O 1: Now that we’ve found something positive on which to agree, let’s wind this up. I —
O 2: I feel I’ve got to say one more thing.
O 1: I was afraid of that.
O 2: Listen, I’m not enjoying this. After all, I like Dylan just as much as you do. But because we agree on three “new” songs, I don’t think you should inflate their importance and project an upcoming string of major triumphs. Three good songs are three good songs, but I can name for you a half-dozen artists who have done better, more exciting, more ambitious work in the last few years than Dylan has. All I’m saying is, despite your highfalutin’ talk of man and myth, I’m going to wait and see. That seems fair.
O 1: Now that Dylan’s ranging free with newfound vitality through his past and present, he’ll annihilate you in the future.
O 2: That’s his job, isn’t it?
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This story is from the January 6th, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.